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House Of Tudor 

American astronauts and Southern gothic singers

Wednesday, Apr 18 2001
In 1998, Cory McAbee presented a script -- or, rather, an elaborate sachet of paintings, sketches, and outlandish dialogue -- to the Sundance Screenwriters' Lab. Of thousands of submissions, American Astronaut was among a dozen selected for the five-day workshop, its script much lauded for its unorthodox slant and purity of vision. This award will not surprise fans of McAbee's musical group, the Billy Nayer Show. Over the years, the bizarre, uniquely bouncy, and somewhat sinister group has put out four full-length albums, a book of cartoons, parables, puzzles, and illustrated bunny tales, and three film shorts (an animated musical moment created from house paint and a bathroom door; a Pixelated autobiographical memoir set on the moon; and a fairy tale created from 30 minutes of papier-mâché and riotous song).

All the while, American Astronaut has been percolating. In its finished form, the now-completed film is a simple "semi-autobiographical musical space western" about an interplanetary trader named Samuel Curtis (played by McAbee) who is doggedly pursued by the homicidal Professor Hess (played by the exemplary Rocco Sisto). The Professor hates Curtis and, until he can learn to forgive, must content himself with reducing all of Curtis' casual acquaintances to soft, gray space dust. Meanwhile, Curtis hops from a barroom on Ceres to the mining planet Jupiter to an all-female paradise on Venus, exchanging a cat named Monkeypuss for the "Real Live Girl," whom he then trades for a "Boy Who Had Actually Seen a Real Woman's Breast," all in the hopes of acquiring the remains of a Venusian stud, which will fetch a pretty penny back on Earth. Hess, naturally, has other ideas.

American Astronaut's beautiful, gritty world of space saloons and galaxy-cruising mobile homes, created by cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel III and production designer Geoff Tuttle, is a moving manifestation of McAbee's pen-and-ink artwork. Shot in grainy black-and-white washes that emphasize strange angles and stark planes of light, the partially animated look of the film is both space age and Depression era. The music, directed by everlasting BNS right-hand man Bobby Lurie, springs up in fittingly peculiar moments: as Curtis sits on the toilet, during a miners' lunch break, and at a meteor outpost dance contest. While most of the songs are sung by actors, the tunes are unalterably Billy Nayer; when Curtis sings the finale -- "The Girl With the Vagina Made of Glass" -- you finally understand what McAbee had in mind when he released the tune three years ago. Of 91 minutes, there are only a few pauses too pregnant and a few scenes too obscured by shadow and intent, but these moments are eclipsed by seamless performances, the unremitting talent of BNS, and McAbee's fantastic interpretations of his world, such as the moment Curtis' spaceship alarm wakes him with the blaring interrogation, "What did your father teach you?" and Curtis groggily replies, "My father taught me to kill the sunflower." American Astronaut will show at the Balboa Theater (38th Avenue & Balboa) on Thursday, April 19, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8; call 221-8184. It also screens Saturday, April 21, at the Rafael Film Center (1118 Fourth St., San Rafael) at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10; call 454-1222. The Billy Nayer Show performs on Friday, April 20, at the Great American Music Hall at 9 p.m. Ticket price is $10; call 885-0750. And on Sunday, April 22, at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley at 9 p.m. Ticket price is $10; call 388-2820.

Listening to Paula Frazer sing is like hanging on the lips of a lonely ghost. Both eerie and welcoming, her graceful soprano stretches time and corporeal space, transporting the listener through a perilous haze of esoteric obsessions. Frazer can express horror, bereavement, exhilaration, and pleasure in the air of a single lingering vowel -- a talent she may have honed while singing for her father's Georgia choir as a child. But her edification did not begin and end there. Inspired by her mother's ardor for Billie Holiday, George Gershwin, and Patsy Cline, Frazer began singing in jazz groups as a young teen in the Ozarks. Once she'd settled in the Bay Area, she scattered her musical gifts broadly, singing with the Bulgarian women's choir Savina and post-punk outfits such as Frightwig, and playing bass with seminal pre-altcountry group Virginia Dare. Frazer's own group, Tarnation, emerged during the early '90s resurgence of Americana, shaded by sinister pedal steel and bathed in Frazer's preternatural warble. In the late 1990s, when Beggar's Banquet bought the band's label, 4AD, Frazer took the opportunity to dissolve Tarnation and set out on her own.

Indoor Universe is the result of Frazer's four-year silence, a glimmering cache of songs about love imagined, desired, and lost. While more mature and musically diverse than anything Tarnation created -- Morricone-inspired western tangos swagger between meticulously constructed ballads, while '60s-style pop songs wink in marshy light between elegant orchestral hymns and bossa nova-tinted folk numbers -- Universe is even more clearly the incarnation of a single voice, one that casually embodies loneliness, suffering, and the faithful worship of rooms painted by shafts of sunlight and the memory of millponds. Paula Frazer appears on Tuesday, April 24, at the Make-Out Room with a listening party at 8 p.m. and live performance at 9 p.m. Admission is free; call 647-2888.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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